SAN ANTONIO – Jalen Brunson can’t seem to approach another 2018 NCAA tournament game without folks touting it as a marquee matchup, which is the way it’s been during Villanova’s run to a potential second national championship in three years.
It will be the same story Saturday night when the consensus two best guards in the country – Brunson and Devonte’ Graham of Kansas – will be in the spotlight in their national semifinal game at the Alamodome.
As was the case with the other fine guards he’s played against in the tournament – Collin Sexton of Alabama, Jevon Carter of West Virginia and Keenan Evans of Texas Tech – Brunson has done his best to downplay any 1-on-1 duel, saying that both teams switch a lot on defense and involve all five players in their offense.
“We have a lot of guys who can make plays,” Brunson said Friday. “Everyone’s been talking about Devonte’ vs. Jalen. But it’s Villanova vs. Kansas.
“There are so many good pieces on that team to help them be successful. They’ve been that way all year. That’s why they won the Big 12 regular-season and conference tournament. They’re a really good team. We got a taste of the Big 12 in our last two games, and now we’re playing one of the best teams in the country. It’s definitely a challenge for us.”
Brunson picked up his second national player of the year award in as many days Friday, adding the Oscar Robertson Trophy presented by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association to the Associated Press honor he won Thursday.
Graham, a 6-foot-2 senior, said the matchup “deserves the hype” but noted, like Brunson, that it’s two teams facing off, not two individuals.
“He’s a great player,” Graham said. “He does a lot of things well. He knows how to get his shot and make plays for others. I keep saying he’s unique because he posts guys up, and he’s able to score off of that.”
Graham may be the most skilled of all of the opponents Brunson has faced all season, a player who can score (17.2 points per game) and pass (7.8 assists per game) with equal proficiency. He also has been durable, averaging 39.5 minutes in the tournament.
Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team played against Carter and Evans during the Big 12 season, said Brunson presents different challenges.
“He’s an unbelievable efficient offensive player,” Self said. “He may be, probably is, their best post player as well. That’s different than what we’re used to. We’ve never had to guard [a player] as diverse and as skilled in so many areas as what Jalen is.”
Likewise, Villanova coach Jay Wright cited the difficulty in creating a game plan to contain Graham.
“We’ve watched him his whole career and he’s just gotten better and better every year whereas this year he’s totally complete,” he said. “He can be a scorer that can dominate a game, or he can be a facilitator who just gets everybody else the ball.”
Wright likes the way Brunson has handled the previous matchups and hopes he can keep the same level head Saturday night.
“It’s tempting when everyone is talking to you about the matchup, when you’re the player they’re talking about, it’s just tempting for it to get in your head,” he said. “I don’t think he’s let it. I know Jalen loves a challenge, and I think part of his challenge is not getting caught up in it. I really hope he doesn’t.”
But that does not stop a coach who might be a fan as well from thinking about the 1-on-1.
“I hope they’re matched up against each other quite a bit because I think it will be fun for people to see that and certain fun to coach against it,” Self said.
“I don’t think I would enjoy any matchup against Devonte’ Graham,” he said. “He’s got the ability to shoot over someone close to his size. Put a bigger guy on him, he’s got the quickness to go by him. So I wouldn’t say I would look at it exactly like Bill.”